The concept of being shamed for not being able to pay for lunch is an unfortunate truth in the United States. While some states, including Illinois, have decided to combat lunch shaming at the source, many states still have no policies against it.
Wygal said he first learned about lunch shaming in a summer course taught by Anni Reinking, the director of development & education research at the CS Education Research Resource Center.
“I did a whole section of my course on lunch shaming and he really seemed to be interested in it and did one of his final projects on it,” Reinking said.
Reinking said lunch shaming is part of a much broader issue in society.
“Lunch shaming is part of what’s called “monetary shaming” and “food shaming.” Under that umbrella is really shaming children who are eating reduced lunch or have overdrawn lunch accounts and put them in a different place in the cafeteria to give them a different lunch,” Reinking said.
With the betterment of children in mind, alumnus Zach Wygal, a special education teacher at the Hillsboro Junior High School in Hillsboro, Illinois, said he started his journey to learn about lunch shaming in a class about Poverty In Schools at SIUE. After the class, Wygal said he realized the school he teaches at had a problem.
“I came back to my school and was talking to the superintendent — I was friends with the school board president and I was like, ‘Hey how can we get rid of this at our school,’” Wygal said. “[In] our entire district ,if you owed over $25, students were not given a regular lunch. They were just given a cheese sandwich.”
As soon as he heard that it was happening at his workplace, Wygal said he decided he was going to do something about it.
“I realized that at the school that I taught at, we were doing that there. I never really thought much about it, I just thought that it was normal. I didn’t think too deeply into it, I don’t think a lot of people did,” Wygal said.
Reinking said some of her reasoning for focusing on the subject in her class comes from personal experience through teaching and being a mother.
“My son is in seventh grade now so within the last seven or eight years this has happened with children in his school. I'm hearing him come home and saying, ‘Little Tommy had to sit at a different table today because they said he didn’t have enough money on his lunch account,’ or in some schools that I have been in as an observer [I would see that] some students have marks on their hands,” Reinking said.
Wygal said many administrators don’t want to enforce policies that lead to things like lunch shaming, but with a growing lunch debt, many schools had to make a choice.
“[The school board] said that the lunch debt went down considerably when they started doing this to kids. They didn’t like doing it, but parents started paying their lunch debt,” Wygal said. “It didn’t really make sense to me because now I’m thinking, ‘Hey, this kid’s caught in the middle. My eighth grader’s not going to go out and get a job to pay down his lunch debt.”
To devote his attention to the problem, Wygal said he changed his graduate program from Curriculum and Instruction to Diversity and Equity in Education directed by Jennifer Logue, a professor in the department of Educational Leadership.
“His passion is obviously advocating for social justice in schools, and then he found our program and realized, ‘I can actually do this and get a degree for it,’” Logue said.“Zach and our program were a perfect match. The nicest thing to see is students who continue the work they started in our program.”
Logue said she first heard about lunch shaming from Wygal when he had a class with her. Growing up in Ontario, Canada, Logue said she had never realized “lunch shaming” was a term.
“One of the major differences between Canada and the U.S. is funding for education. In Canada, the funding is federal, we have federal funds that school’s rely on, so there’s far less gaps,” Logue said.
Regardless of the money involved, Reinking said she still believes this is something that directly punishes children for something they can’t control.
“This shaming of students and this idea that young children, not just high school students, but young children in elementary schools are ... being punished for an adult action. It’s not the child’s fault that they don’t have money in their lunch account,” Reinking said.
Wygal said he decided that the research he’d done was only going to be useful if he did something about it, so he took his research straight to Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).
Upon realizing that the process was going to be slow, Wygal said he made a website to raise awareness about lunch shaming and help people get in contact with representatives and lawmakers in their states.